Millbank: Perry happily plays the provocateur




SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country,” Rick Perry proposed midway through Wednesday night’s debate. And Perry, the Texas governor, did more than propose. Debating for the first time with his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, he was on a one-man campaign to spread provocative language. The querulous candidate, in his debut, fought with everybody and every thing.

Social Security, he declared anew, is “a monstrous lie” and a “Ponzi scheme.” Making economic decisions because of climate-change science is “nonsense,” he announced, likening scientists who believe in global warming to flat-earthers. “Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” he said.

Perry berated President Obama, saying he either “has some of the poorest intel of a president in the history of this country, or he was an abject liar to the American people.” He criticized former President George W. Bush: “I don’t think America needs to be in the business of adventurism.” He dismissed former Vice President Dick Cheney, who had disagreed with Perry: “I don’t care what anyone says.”

Perry bickered with the moderator, saying a question was “incorrect” and “hypocritical.” And, naturally, he bickered with Mitt Romney, his leading opponent for the nomination. “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Perry charged. Romney, who had declined to draw first blood, replied: “Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor.”

“That’s not correct,” Perry retorted. “Yeah, it is correct,” the former Massachusetts governor said evenly. “That’s not correct,” Perry taunted with a grin.

Actually, Romney was correct. The rate of nonfarm payroll growth under Perry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was 1 percent annually, compared to 3.2 percent for Bush.

Being wrong no obstacle

But being wrong was no obstacle for the pugnacious Perry. When moderator Brian Williams of NBC pointed out that a large number of the jobs created during Perry’s tenure were low-wage jobs, Perry disputed that claim. But it’s true.

When the other moderator, Politico’s John Harris, pointed out that Texas ranks dead last in the number of people with health insurance, Perry claimed that it was because the federal government “for years” hadn’t granted the Medicaid changes he requested. PolitiFact has rated that a “pants on fire” falsehood.

Whether or not Perry’s pants were smoking, his temper was hot. The man who has flirted with secession and suggested that the Federal Reserve chairman could be guilty of treason was determined to deliver more of the same. After Romney, invited by the moderators to criticize Perry’s lack of private-sector experience, declined to pick a fight, Perry decided to strike first. “We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts,” the Texan claimed. When the moderators solicited thoughts from the other candidates on Romneycare, Perry again pressed the attack. “It was a great opportunity for us as a people to see what will not work,” he said.

When moderator Harris pointed out Texas’ worst-in-the-nation health coverage, Perry let it be known that Texans “don’t want a health care plan like what Governor Romney put in place.”

Perry’s anger proved contagious. When he defended the record-high number of executions he has allowed, the audience applauded. “What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?” moderator Williams asked. Perry, who vetoed legislation that would have banned executions of the mentally disabled, replied: “I think Americans understand justice.”

Here’s another explanation: When you rile up a crowd to the point where they applaud death, your language doesn’t need to be any more provocative.

Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: